The Fourth of July: A Quick History

The 4th of July was first recognized as a federal holiday back in 1941, but people have been celebrating it since the 18th century.

On June 2, 1776, the Continental Congress met to discuss seceding from England. The Congress was largely put together by Benjamin Franklin, who finally convinced the disunited colonies to form one representative body after the Intolerable Acts were passed by Britain to punish the colonists for the Boston Tea Party.

December 16, 1773: Angry colonists, disguised as native americans, board a British tea ship and dump its cargo overboard to protest the taxes leveed by the Tea Act

The Congress included George Washington, who would eventually command the colonial revolutionary army before becoming the first president, and Patrick Henry, famous for his “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech which inspired Virginian colonists to mobilize against the approaching British forces.

Besides Washington, the Congress also included four other future presidents: John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence.

One of the most iconic Independence Day pictures: Jefferson presents the Declaration to the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776

The Continental Congress actually voted in favor of independence on the 2nd, but it wasn’t until the 4th that all of its delegates adopted Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which is why we celebrate the birth of America on this day.

The signatures at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence. Click to enlarge

The first 4th of July was quite the spectacle. Though not all the colonists agreed with the decision to break away from England, the ones who did had one heck of a party. The festivities included concerts, parades, bonfires, and the firing of guns and cannons (a pre-cursor to fireworks).

Many colonists even held mock funerals for King George III to represent the end of his tyranny. The Declaration of Independence was also read (multiple times I’m sure) at most of the celebrations.

This painting by John Krimmel from 1819 depicts an early celebration of Independence Day in Philadelphia. It includes a military parade as well as people picnicking, drinking, playing music and even arguing politics

Today, the 4th has become less about the downfall of King George and more about celebrating all the great things we have accomplished as a nation in our relatively short history. The celebrations may not be quite as morbid, but anyone will tell you that they’re just as passionate.

A Few Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the 4th:

John Adams always believed that the true birthday of American independence was July 2, the day that the Continental Congress voted on the issue. He would reportedly turn down invitations to celebrations on the 4th to show his protest.

Also, 3 of our first 5 presidents died on the 4th. Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the first 4th of July celebration. James Monroe, our 5th president, died exactly five years later, on July 4, 1831.

(h/t History Channel)

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